Am I just an asshole, or are you kind of tired of Upworthy too? I’m not a vegan; I don’t strictly abstain from watching Upworthy videos. But when I think about the site and what it boils down to, it’s a little creepy. Chances are, you’ve seen an Upworthy video, but chances are that you also don’t know too much about its background. Upworthy is a socially liberal website for viral content. It was created by the former executive director of MoveOn and the former managing editor of The Onion. Its mission is solely to publicize progressive narratives by hosting “awesome,” “meaningful,” and “visual” content. This past summer, Fast Company called it “the fastest growing media site of all time.”
Upworthy shifts back and forth between giving viewers tearjerker, soapbox-type videos, or dishing out straight-up justice porn. The site uses titles which tend to be sensationalized, exaggerated, and scandal-mongering—it’s a perfect example of yellow journalism. Yellow journalism has been uniquely a no-no in news publications, but with the rise of viral Internet content, it has experienced a resurgence due to the unbelievable audience it draws. No online publication is safe. In addition to being sensationalist, the titles are so formulaic that there’s an Upworthy Title Generator, a parody Twitter account called @UpWorthIt, and they’ve even paired Upworthy-style titles with stills from The Simpsons.
Critics of Upworthy have also called it passive slacktivism because the videos allow for the viewer to feel like they’re doing something by watching them, sharing them, and signing a long list of petitions when prompted by the site. I’m divided on this. Is it passive in that we don’t get up and do something? Is it passive in that signing petitions doesn’t really make a difference? Absolutely. But is it passive to share, create conversations about social issues, and possibly change a number of opinions, and therefore, have an effect on the overarching climate? I’m less willing to say yes on this.
But the weirdest thing, the one thing that totally creeps me out about Upworthy, is that it does such a perfect job of commodifying inspiration, kind of like another organization. Remember when inspiration used to be more like this? Now it’s more like this. Need to feel inspired? Now you can in an instant. Inspiration is no longer as rare as a double rainbow, but rather, packaged in a neat little box, and all it takes is three minutes of your time. Becoming inspired is easier than ordering a pizza. Because if your faith in humanity isn’t restored after hearing this former astronaut’s startling declaration, then you have a heart of stone, right?
There are a couple more conservative sites that create fast media, like Twitchy, Michelle Malkin’s website (fight me, Michelle Malkin), which is a Twitter curation website. In response to Upworthy, a group of people even created a Christian version of the website called Faithit for people “to express their faith online, every day, in an effort to share the most inspiring and encouraging content with both their online networks and everyone on the Web.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or not, or Christian or not. Both sites exist as propaganda machines, and both do a good job of getting others to share their content. And when you feel inspired or extremely positive about something, you become receptive to ideas. Even if we agree with some of the content that Upworthy posts, we should absolutely be skeptical of it simply because of the way it does it.
I remember when Google Video was a thing. I was in high school, and I remember it was where I saw the original Free Hugs video. I was impressionable, and moved by something so simple as a hug from a stranger. Nowadays you can find any hipster outside a college campus with a Free Hugs sign, or any bridge troll, for that matter. And I can’t help it. I’m totally jaded. My inspiration threshold has higher standards, and I can’t help but feel manipulated every time I click on a Upworthy link. Is it bad for us to be inspired so easily, and all the time? Is it even possible to live in a state of constant inspiration?